Neal Sales-Griffin chose which stops would be made on the Saturday shuttle from campus to downtown Chicago. On the spot. “Off the top of my head,” he said.
The SESP senior was meeting early in Fall Quarter with Director of University Services Brian Peters and University Services Manager Marge Grzezczuk, and “they were like, ‘All right, [we've] got $12,000 and we have a shuttle that can go downtown. Where would you like it to go?’” Sales-Griffin said. “I was like, ‘Well, we could take it to the River East and Navy Pier and [Shedd] Aquarium.’ And they were like, ‘Okay.’”
To the now former ASG president, this signaled one thing about student government’s role at Northwestern: “You do stuff,” he said. “It’s not as bureaucratic as people perceive.”
Monday, Communication junior Mike McGee begins his first full week as ASG president, which means, according to his predecessor, that he is now the supposed “voice of the student body.” McGee will meet often with top administrators such as Vice President of Student Affairs William Banis, and try to represent the views and needs of the 8,000 undergraduates on campus.
“The best way to truly determine students’ approval or disapproval of something is through ASG, ironically enough,” Sales-Griffin said.
But how does ASG accurately understand what students care about, and properly convey this to administrators in charge of our tuition, meal plans and classes? Can a small group of students holed up in Norris truly represent the eclectic and diverse interests of the student body without skewing their priorities, at least somewhat? In a recent interview as he prepared to leave office, Sales-Griffin said that improving ASG’s ability to do so has been “the whole point of my presidency,” and offered other insights into the capabilities — and limitations — of student government at Northwestern.
During the past few months, ASG has set up three separate forums with administrators, the last one with outgoing University President Henry Bienen and Banis. Only about 40 students attended the most popular forum, with Bienen. But the point, according to Sales-Griffin, is not to get every person involved; it’s to give students the opportunity to be heard if they so desire, and to ensure that those students get full and real answers from school officials.
What students don’t always realize, according to Sales-Griffin, is that Bienen, Banis and others “do take us seriously.” But they’re not always fully aware of what students want or need. This was most apparent to Sales-Griffin when he was pushing for a new student center to replace Norris during a meeting of the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee. Bienen “said that it was too hard to raise money for it,” Sales-Griffin said. “And I’m sitting there like, ‘You know, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not good enough. We need to have this.”
“They struggled to understand why, as students, Norris was a frustrating building. And I was baffled. Because I know why Norris is frustrating, because I live here. But they don’t,” Sales-Griffin said. Administrators may not always see it through our lens, but “It’s up to us, though, to communicate our side,” he said. “We need a strong advocate.”
That advocacy may be all the more important next year, Sales-Griffin notes, when Morton Schapiro becomes the new university president, and potentially tries to raise funds through a capital campaign. “This is something that the next ASG president is going to have to champion like none other,” he said.
The hope is that such advocacy doesn’t come from ASG leaders who “just do things and just hope that students like it.” Sales-Griffin said that he had answered every email from students during his tenure, in one way or another. He also noted that ASG often tries to get students who are vocal about specific issues to join a committee and work on them.
But some students think that ASG is still unable to get in touch with students’ needs. For example Blake Yocom, who ran against Sales-Griffin a year ago, said that ASG is still “self-serving” — they do things to bolster their own image instead of improve the lives of students.
Sales-Griffin is mostly bullish about his accomplishments. “You can size me up if you were to take the accomplishments of this year and look at last year and compare them,” he said. “I’m confident in those types of things but what matters more to me is the sort of a long-term establishment of an action-oriented group of people that are passionate. And I think that’s what we fostered.”
But of course many other ideas designed to make ASG more representative of students are still in the works. One such idea is near fruition: a new Web site designed to make interaction with students easy.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if a student had a question or concern, we could submit a question on the ASG front page, we could have an answer right there,” Sales-Griffin said. “‘Why don’t we have U-Passes?’ ‘How do I start a student group?’ ‘Where does the $1.2 million that we pay for student activities go?’” Students will find the answers to such questions on the site itself.
The site will also have a “projects page,” which will show each issue that student government is working on, and assign a percentage to show how near completion each proposal is.
“Simple stuff. Why didn’t we have this before? I don’t know. We’ve been talking about it for a while.”
Mike Elsen-Rooney contributed reporting.